Book Reviews

Deep State: Trump, the FBI, and the Rule of Law. James B. Stewart. New York: Penguin Press, 2019.

Controversy regarding Russian meddling has dogged Donald Trump’s presidential administration since before its inception. The controversy is too long to summarize here; the best summary is the Mueller report itself (Mueller Report). You might recall that Robert Mueller asserted that Justice Department rules precluded him from offering any judgment whether the president had broken any laws–since a sitting president could not be called to trial or before a grand jury, the president would be foreclosed from refuting under oath any charges. Mueller’s report concluded that the Russian government meddled in the 2016 election in favor of Trump and against Clinton (perhaps because of Trump’s pre-election Russia-related business dealings both inside and outside Russia, and because of Senator Clinton’s support for the sanctions placed on Russian oligarchs in the Magnitsky Act), and that Trump committed acts that amounted to obstruction of justice during the post-election inquires into actions by him, his backers, and staff. Ever since, Trump and his enablers, including Attorney General Barr, have worked to make invisible the report’s findings. Among their tactics has been assertions of the existene of a “Deep State” and FBI “bias.”

Stewart takes no position regarding bias or lack there of. Instead, as did Sargent Joe Friday in old Dragnet re-runs, he asks for “the facts, only the facts, and nothing but the facts.” Stewart, a Pulitzer Prize winning author, walks steadily and without comment (prior to the concluding chapter) through the history of the FBI investigation, date-by-date, step-by-step, person-by-person. Need I repeat the truism that facts have a liberal bias? The facts put to the lie Attorney General Barr’s biased four-page summary of the Mueller report, Trump’s self-serving denials, and more recent attacks by Barr and Senate Republicans on the dedicated civil servants that staff the FBI.

This book should be read by every American patriot who values the Constitution, the rule of law, and fears authoritarians. Bill Barr and Donald Trump excepted.


The Ship of Dreams: The Sinking of the Titanic and the End of the Edwardian Era. Gareth Russell. New York: Atria Books (Simon & Schuster) 2019. Previously published as The Darksome Bounds of a Failing World. London: William Collins. 2019.

The Ship of Dreams: The Sinking of the Titanic and the End of the Edwardian Era

The April 14, 1912, sinking of the Cunard Line’s steamship Titanic seems always to fascinate. Not the largest or fastest transatlantic steamer, she was built as the most elegant. No expense was spared during three years of construction. Its inaugural sailing attracted a cast of the wealthy and elegant, in addition to more than a thousand steerage passengers largely from Ireland and Scandinavia.

Russell’s book focuses on the lifestyle of the rich and famous. He obviously is not a fan. Their vanities, foibles, and indiscretions: all are discussed in detail and dispatched. The British title is more descriptive than the American one: the darksome bounds of a failing world.

I found the book initially interesting–but soon tired of the repetitive discourse. My view is that the business side of the White Star Line, its construction of three enormous sister ships (the Olympic class), and the loss of the Titanic is a fascinating marketing and business story. The story of the fading Victorian lifestyle of the rich passengers, much less so.

For many readers, I suggest a different book: The Titanic: The History and Legacy of the World’s Most Famous Ship from 1907 to Today, by the Charles River Editors (2014). This volume spans the Titanic’s construction, outfitting, passengers, sinking, and subsequent British and American inquiries. Fascinating detail is included regarding the first, second and steerage class passengers, including their accomodation, family relationships, romances, and children. I prefer its broader scope, and the absence of Russell’s obvious strong disdain for the British upper class.


Recommended: Treasury’s War: The Unleashing of a New Era of Financial Warfare Juan C. Zarate. (Public Affairs Books, New York, 2013)

The U.S. economy is the world’s largest and the US dollar the world’s reserve currency. Fundamental to all business, including terrorism and organized crime, is the ability to use the worldwide banking system to originate and receive payments. Most institutions involved in international payments find it necessary, eventually, to do business with financial institutions either located in the United States or American-owned abroad. Using this necessity as fulcrum and lever, the US Treasury Department during the last decade has cajoled (and occasionally coerced) businesses, financial institutions, and governments to cease doing business with terrorists, money launderers, and rogue states. Juan Zarate has written a fascinating first-person account of these actions.

Perhaps the most intriguing part of Zarate’s narrative is his willingness to “name names.”  Zarate’s revelations nicely complement the Snowden-based revelations regarding the NSA — and Zarate’s account is first-hand, not stolen. (Would this book have been published, in this form, if he had worked for the CIA?) The often illicit actions of individuals, firms, countries, and banks are revealed. The story of how the Treasury gained access to the SWIFT messaging service (and used the messages to track Al Qaeda financing) is fascinating. He includes first-person descriptions of negotiations with Saudi rulers, and carefully buttresses broad claims such as: “Cutting off flows of funds to Al Qaeda thus meant much more than just targeting  a few select individuals or institutions. It was ultimately about challenging a fundamental element of Saudi policy by constricting how the Saudis and their institutions funded activities abroad.” Specific meetings, persons, and events are included, including the effort to close the the large Islamic charity Al Haramain, limit drug financing in Afghanistan, trace the funding of the terrorist attacks in Mumbai, the growth of Lebanon as a center for “bad banks” and money laundering, North Korea’s production of US$100 “supernotes” (Zarate’s discussion is the first that I recall of the alliance between North Korea and US criminal elements to bring such notes to the US), Treasury efforts to bring pressure against Iran’s nuclear program, and others.

The book concludes with a thoughtful discussion of how players in international financial markets are seeking to create banking and payment schemes that never touch American soil or institutions, including efforts by China and the popularity of stateless electronic monies such as bitcoin, and hence are not susceptible to American financial pressures.

My sole complaint concerns repetition: chapters tend to begin and end with missives that seek to persuade the reader of the seriousness of the threats and the cleverness of the Treasury officials fighting them. But that point is well-made at the beginning of the book. My advice to readers is not to be put off by these chapter introductions — move rapidly into the meat of each chapter. Readers interesting in the intersection between the international financial system and international criminal activity will not be disappointed.